EDITORIAL – Council Leadership Pitiful During Lockout

Since last Friday, Guelphites from Watson Parkway to Elmira Road, from Woodlawn to Claire, have all enjoyed the renewed freedom of movement and cost efficiency of riding Guelph Transit. Both the Guelph City Council and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1189 moved quickly last Tuesday to ratify the negotiated agreement, and city hall offered a small token of peace to transit users by making buses free for a week. So to quote the song from a popular animated movie, “Everything is Awesome,” right?
Well let’s ask Ray Sheppard, who had to spend $50 in cab fare per day to get to and from work. Or Jackie Mahony, who spend $40 in cabs everyday to visit loved ones in the hospital. Or personal support worker June Loughed who put $400 in the coffers of Canadian Cab, Red Top and Guelph Taxi. Jonathan Ridgeway doesn’t think it’s awesome, as he had to shell out cab fare so that his employees could make it to work to assist fewer customers, since walk-in traffic took a hit with fewer than normal people moving around. Poor Ryan Fowler wishes his boss was altruistic enough to give out cab fare, he lost his job when the two hour walk to and from work proved cumbersome.

Those were the five people featured in the Guelph Tribune’s weekly streeter and asked the question how they coped with the transit lockout. I have a feeling that these five are a small sample of the thousands who had similar struggles for nearly three weeks in the Royal City when the sour negotiations with transit workers took an even more sour turn with the threat, revoking and implementation of the lockout. The question is though, will Ray, Jackie, June, Jonathan and Ryan make city council pay for it at the ballot box on October 27? I don’t know if they will, but I can think of a compelling case why they should think about it.

Let’s start here. I sent an email to all members of city council, in some cases twice, requesting comment about why the lockout was necessary, and what they were doing to minimize the impact on riders. A little over half of council got back to me, and most of those responses, in some way, referred the matter to previous comments made by Ann Pappert and Mayor Karen Farbridge. Never mind I wasn’t asking them to comment on the nitty-gritty of the negotiations or the city’s offer, what I mostly wanted to know was how they were going to represent their constituents, many of whom were surely affected by the lockout, to the city that threw their daily routine in a tailspin.

I wondered, if people in Ward 2, or 3, or 6 were e-mailing their city councillors and saying, please get the buses back on the road so that I can have an easier time getting to work, or school, or the doctor’s office, were these concerned citizens then referred to the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer? Forgive me if this seems naive, but if I were a city councillor I wouldn’t be saying “talk to the CAO’s office,” I’d be in the CAO’s office saying “Get these buses back on the roads! My constituents are stranded.” Considering that Pappert is not an elected official, and thus not answerable to the electorate, I certainly hope that council’s reaction in private was more the latter then the former. I understand the function of the civil service, but let’s be honest, if there’s a political price to be paid it will be paid by council, not Pappert, so why take cover underneath her?

Could it be that some on city council want to hide the dirty politics of the lockout fight? Let’s put it this way: you’re a mayor and city council that’s been accused of gross mismanagement of city expenses. It’s an election year and you need to prove your spend thrifty, but you’ve had to eat a court-ruling against you, a spending scandal on overtime, and a local advocacy group pushing to prove a conspiracy of malfeasance. You need to prove that you’re, as a certain Toronto Mayor might say, watching every tax dollar, squeezing every dime and standing up to greedy unions that want more money for less work.

So let’s see… Unions… Well, there’s firefighters and police, but not only are they essential services that can’t strike, people like them and want them on the job. There’s the outdoor workers, but people aren’t going to be too happy about not having their garbage picked up in the middle of summer. There’s always library workers, but that always blows back badly with some demographics, and besides, we’re the council that’s pushing for new, bigger libraries. That leaves transit. The low hanging fruit for those willing to trade the appearance of fiscal prudence for class warfare. After all, only four types of people take the bus: seniors, students, the poor, and new immigrants. Of those four groups, all but one don’t vote in large numbers and the seniors vote for what’s old and familiar over the new and strange, we can count on that support. Transit it is.

Unfortunately for city hall, ATU 1189 didn’t want more money, they wanted to talk about working conditions. Well shoot, didn’t they ruin everything?

That’s the only way to explain the bizarre negotiating tactics of the city: a year of negotiations culminating in a firmly worded “final” (actually “first”) offer that if not accepted would result in the union being locked out. An 11th hour reprieve that offered the union more money than the first offer but again it addressed none of the other concerns and was voted down by the union once more. After that, the lockout was on, and the city said that the union demands were nebulous and unknowable and their negotiating team was ever changing. Meanwhile, the city offered a breakdown of the cost of union demands, which begs the question: how can the union’s demands be so uncertain, but still be priced out for their full impact on budget by the city?

But if the city thought that they could fool the public with a bizarre game of “Choose the Reason for the Lockout,” it was just a symptom of the tin ear it seemed to have in regards to how the lockout would affect its people. Aside the fact that amongst the city’s suggestions to cope with the lockout was to post the telephone numbers for all of Guelph’s taxi services and car rental companies, as if renting a car indefinitely is an option for someone who doesn’t own a car to begin with, council seemed fairly out of touch with the average Guelphite who takes transit.

After the first lockout was aborted, someone on Twitter asked Farbridge if she might ride the bus the next day in solidarity with all the transit users who almost lost their primary means of getting around. Farbridge responded that lived a mere 10 minutes walk from her office, making a ride on the bus pointless. Of course! Why didn’t we all think of that?! Why don’t all of us get offices a 10 minute walk from our houses thus avoiding the need for mechanized transportation all together. I know many in council have pushed for the idea of walkable communities, but most people in the Royal City don’t have one, which makes Farbridge’s tweet seem all the more elitist and superior.

I heard many times over the course of the lockout that the alternative was to wait till September when the union would be in a better position to strike with school, from kindergarten to university, back in full swing. To which I say, yeah, no kidding. That’s that way labour negotiations work, you make for the pressure points so that the job action hurts and makes management more likely, and more quickly, concede to your demands. The problem here is that ATU 1189 never had a strike vote, never called a strike vote, and never discussed in the media a strike or a vote. That’s not to say that I’m sure they never talked about it, but they never made an attempt to do so either despite working without a contract for a year. All this makes a compelling case that there was one side here who did not act in good faith, and that is the City of Guelph.

As much as you want to ascribe people in government with the idea that they act 100 per cent of the time in good faith, the case of the transit lockout seems more and more like politics. City council wanted to play the Ford card in the hopes for the same kind of populist swell the Mayor of Toronto has, but as much as Ford’s internal logic falters, like when he pushes more costly subways over the much cheaper LRTs, council’s assertion that they had “no choice” to lockout transit workers doesn’t pass the smell test.

Other than platitudes, council seemed to show no ability to understand the plight of people left abandoned by a bus-less city, and at the same time had no willingness to move the sides towards resolution and instead hid behind city staff. Everyone at city hall seemed to be of the opinion that no matter what way they acted that transit workers would take the blame; after all, it was the union’s fault that the new routes and schedule were so poorly executed when introduced, and it was the union’s fault that they were constantly being asked to take on job responsibilities like the late night bus service that weren’t covered under contract, so why wouldn’t be the union’s fault that negotiations ended in them being locked out?

This time though people are looking at city council and city staff and wondering who the people messing up transit really are. And that new scrutiny is not good news for those wanting to hold on to their jobs post-October 27.

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